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Book #4 4321: Paul Auster

It would be reasonable to say that when you set yourself the challenge of reading a certain amount of books in a limited time frame, it would make sense to pick a number of slim volumes to give yourself something of a flying start. However, this 1000 page monster was a Christmas present, so it seemed slightly perverse to leave it sat on the shelf purely because of some daft task I've set myself (and also to be slightly missing the point of the whole exercise), so in the dog days of January I embarked on the exercise.

The premise is an intriguing one: the different paths our lives may take. It follows four versions of the same boy's life: Archie Ferguson, growing up four times in mid 20th century America. The conceit being that his immigrant grandfather had picked the wrong name when arriving off the boat. It speaks to the what ifs we ask ourselves, what if I'd stayed with her, what if I'd gone to x Uni, what if I'd taken that job offer, what if I'd actually taken my writing seriously twenty years ago rather than getting shitfaced for a decade (no? Just me then).

There's a lot to love about this book. An argument could be made that the central character is not the multiple Fergusons, but America itself, as Auster uses Archie's different personalities to examine the events of a tumultuous time in its history (one Ferguson is devastated at Kennedy's assasination, one is indifferent, one reports the Columbia riots, one is too busy writing his novel). Auster uses his conceit to dig down into the foibles of suburban 50s America set against the burgeoning counterculture. It's never not interesting.

Where it fell down a little for me was Ferguson himself.He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a pillock, a self-absorbed (except when it comes to his melodramatic grand passions) sex-obsessed git. Now, I'm going to cut Auster some slack here and note that he's depicting an adolescent male, the oldest he gets is his early twenties, at which point I too was a self-absorbed, sex-obsessed git (who said "you still are"? I heard that). So you could say Auster's bang on the money. But I found it hard to really root for the moody bugger, even if I sympathised to a degree with his various out of kilter relationships with the world, and never fully understood the adoration he seems to elicit in so many. There was also, in these #metoo days, a little bit too much fucking for my taste, given that the book's written by an author of more advanced years than the teens and twentysomethings he's writing about.

It could be said that another fault is that whilst the lives of the Fergusons diverge, they don't actually diverge that far. Most lead a literary life of some sort, there's a lot of Paris, the same characters recur. But on reflection, I'd argue that this is a strength, it's interesting to compare and contrast the interactions between Ferguson and his friends and relatives (beyond Ferguson himself the main charcater is probably Amy Schneidermann, by turns sister, lover, friend and cousin, grand passion of his life and distant amusing amigo).

These caveats aside, this is a heavily textured, absorbing read, and even if it does suffer from the regular Auster fault of being perhaps a touch too ready to display its learning and erudition, this is balanced by a lot of thought-provoking examination of our interactions with each other, and emotional response to historical events brough vividly back to life. I'll not spoil the end, but it isn't quite as pat as it seems on first reading, a mark of a writer of considerable acuity and scope. Worth it, but be prepared to give a chunk of time up.

(Edit, I rather rushed this out against the clock this morning, hence the multitude of typos and slightly year 6 book report tone, all I will say is, you try writing a nuanced book review when you have a two year old grabbing your arm demanding pasta for breakfast. In summation, pretty good, dodgy in parts, if you like Auster, you'll bear with it, if you don't, it will infuriate you beyond distraction)


  1. I actually really enjoy your reviews :) It's definitely something I will, based on this, put on the wish list, but might leave off reading until I have a few others 'under the belt'.

    P.S. It's not just you :')


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